Looking out on the winter garden, it’s the evergreens that take center stage. In my case, it’s the bay hedges, Viburnum tinus, box and ivy that are the garden’s skeleton, but recently I’ve felt my garden needs more bones – it needs conifers.
I never thought I’d utter those words. For years, since the Seventies, with the exception of yew, conifers have been firmly out of fashion, but I’ve noted the odd structural plant sculpture, the occasional specimen tree and even a few dwarf conifers creeping into scree gardens, in sinks and in containers. I like to imagine these plants frosted, their silhouettes standing out against a snowy background, and their dense foliage offering winter shelter for garden birds.
Ashwood Nurseries has specialized in conifers - particularly dwarf and slow-growing varieties – for the last half century. Nurseryman Robert Williamson says there has been an increase in interest, especially in grafted dwarf conifers such as bestselling Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader’ and the mound-like Picea abies 'Little Gem’ to display in pots and containers, and in taller columnar varieties to grow in mixed borders among grasses. And rumour has it, Fergus Garrett, head hardener at Great Dixter, is increasingly planting conifers in his famous borders.
I asked Will Dyson, curator of Great Comp gardens near Sevenoaks, which are his abiding favourites among the many conifers that date from the garden’s inception in the Sixties - the conifers’ heyday. He told me many of the original plants had outgrown their place: a Sequoia sempervirens 'Cantab’ sold with a 10ft height had now reached 60ft, but of those that still fitted the landscape, he loved Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan Sugi’ with almost white leaves in winter; Picea breweriana, the slender and drooping weeping spruce; and Macrobiota decussata, a prostrate that turns chocolate brown in winter and looks fabulous next to something golden, such as Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea’.